Judge to visit Webster/Warner 'junkyard' property to make final ruling
One of Gamil Azmy's pigs perches on the fence of its pen on November 8, 2013 on Azmy's property in Warner. Azmy has been in a long court battle with the towns of Warner and Webster about the state of his land. Some of the complaints from neighbors rise from the fact that much of Azmy's working farm is in such close proximity to Highway 103 (behind the fence in the background.) (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Two hearings and more than 200 photographs weren’t enough for a Merrimack County Superior Court judge to decide yesterday whether Gamil and Lois Azmy should face more than $30,000 in fines and legal fees for the state of their property on Route 103 East.
So he’ll walk the land himself.
Judge Richard McNamara has heard this case from his bench for years, but he told town officials from Webster and Warner he couldn’t levy fines against the Azmys without “a strong and clear record.”
“I think the best thing for me to do is to go out there and walk the property and look at it and make a judgement based on what I see,” he told them. “It appears to me, based on what I’ve seen (in the courtroom), it’s hard to believe that there’s compliance with the order.
“And this just can’t go on forever.”
The Azmys consider their 18 acres to be a working farm, but town officials and neighbors have said debris and out-of-date vehicles violate local ordinances and are a nuisance. In May 2011, the Azmys signed a settlement agreement with the towns in which the couple promised to store materials and equipment inside permanent structures and to clean up other debris on their property.
But in June 2012, McNamara found the Azmys in contempt of court for not complying with the agreement, and he ordered them to clean up the property again.
Bart Mayer, counsel for Webster and Warner, stood before the judge yesterday afternoon with selectmen from Warner and Webster in the seats near him – and a crowd of the Azmys’ discontented neighbors in the rows behind him.
“The reason we’re here today, your honor, is because the defendants claim they’ve cleaned up the property and you should abate the fines,” Mayer said. “And the reason we’re here today is to point out that is not the case.”
Attorney John Vanacore, who represents the Azmys, and Mayer went back and forth before McNamara yesterday with a set of photos from an October town inspection of the farm.
Yesterday’s hearing lasted more than two hours and was interrupted by a 45-minute recess so the Azmys and Vanacore could organize their response to the towns’ claims.
The settlement agreement allows for a certain number and type of boats, as well as 18 vehicles, to be on the property. The town argued that several of those boats need to be removed because they have become junk, as they have sapling trees growing out of them and their trailers are rusting.
“I’m frustrated that I’m here in January 2014, and we’re still disputing how many boats are there,” McNamara told the attorneys. “I’m going to take a recess. I have things to do.”
The judge will issue an interim order on whether the boats are in compliance with the order. But when the two sides began to place opposing photos against each other and argue about debris piles, McNamara decided he would investigate that issue himself to put an end to the dispute.
“It’s not a game,” he said. “I don’t issue these orders that are suggestions. They’re orders, and I can order the town to lien the property and sell it if (the Azmys) don’t want to comply with the order to clean up the junkyard that they have created and stop inflicting their sensibilities on their neighbors. They need to live up to that order.”
In court, the Azmys were tense as they sat next to Vanacore before the judge. Their attorney told McNamara that the couple would welcome the chance to show him the work they have put into becoming compliant with the court’s order.
“I think that it would be really wonderful if the court does get the opportunity, does take the opportunity to go out there and see how much is done,” Vanacore said.
McNamara cut him off.
“I don’t care how much is done,” the judge said. “I care whether or not they are in compliance with the order.”
McNamara’s 2012 order also required the couple to pay a fine of $50 a day for each day past Nov. 15, 2011, that they did not do so.
Those fines now total $29,600. The towns have also asked the judge to award them attorneys’ fees in the matter, which total thousands of dollars.
Wendy Pinkham, finance director for the town of Webster, couldn’t say exactly how much the towns have spent litigating this case. But she said that by September, Webster had overspent the $7,500 allotted this year for all of its legal fees, and this case has been the most expensive the town has seen in years.
“I can’t remember any other case that the town’s been involved in on the level of this one,” Pinkham said.
The judge tentatively scheduled his visit to the Azmys’ farm in mid-April, once winter snow has melted.
“It seems like the only solution,” Mayer told the judge.
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)